Facebook’s “Legacy Contact” Option
“When I met you it was love at first sight — you know me inside and out, and I trust you like no other. Won’t you be my Facebook legacy contact?”
— Valentine’s Day cards of the future (an @EstherK prediction)
Since my mother died in May 2011, I’ve written extensively (including on Modern Loss) about the digital footprints that our loved ones leave behind. These legacies can be painful or funny, or sometimes both. Over the past few years, Facebook has offered “a basic memorialized account which was viewable, but could not be managed by anyone.” Many never transitioned the pages of the dearly departed into any kind of internet Valhalla, because it’s just too final, or sometimes, because we didn’t know how.
But right before Valentine’s Day this year, the tidings arrived from the Facebook newsroom — now people can treat the content they’ve created in their digital lifetime as a legacy, and designate an appropriate guardian for that legacy. Introducing the “Legacy Contact”:
[…] people choose a legacy contact — a family member or friend who can manage their account when they pass away. Once someone lets us know that a person has passed away, we will memorialize the account and the legacy contact will be able to:
1) Write a post to display at the top of the memorialized Timeline (for example, to announce a memorial service or share a special message)
2) Respond to new friend requests from family members and friends who were not yet connected on Facebook
3) Update the profile picture and cover photo
If someone chooses, they may give their legacy contact permission to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information they shared on Facebook.
Other settings will remain the same as before the account was memorialized. The legacy contact will not be able to log in as the person who passed away or see that person’s private messages. Alternatively, people can let us know if they’d prefer to have their Facebook account permanently deleted after death.
When I saw this, I gasped with a combination of glee and horror. Leaving aside that last spine-chilling last sentence — “permanently deleted after death” — as a social media consultant and writer who is very active in the social web, this was an acknowledgment that what we’re doing in the Facebook space goes beyond sharing weird memes, incendiary articles and photos of the same kittens or babies in slightly different positions. And our digital footprint — here, specifically on Facebook — can continue to create impact even after we’re gone.
But how do you select someone to manage the (potentially) thousands of posts you may have made over Facebook in your lifetime? The people who know the medium best might be the best suited to the task, but those people may not be your relatives or your dearest friends. Do you choose someone with the skills to manage content or with the emotional commitment and capacity to tend to that online space forever more? Is it too much to hope for both in one trustworthy human package? Finding a life partner is hard enough…now you have to find an additional Mr. or Ms. Right to partner with you even after your life? (Someday, there’ll be an app for that.)
Has the race to be the designated legacy contact begun? Is this going to be a new source of business for social media consultants (“we’ll manage your web presence while you’re alive, and maintain it after you’re gone”)? Will it be a source of contention in families the way inheritance of physical assets is, or will it turn into a game of “not-it”? (Feeling particularly sorry in advance for whoever I select as my legacy contact, and apologizing to you all in advance in case you’re sixty years in the future, reading this after I’m gone because I’ve selected you.) And what happens to my content when my designated legacy contact dies? Does their legacy contact inherit the burden/responsibility/petri dish of managing my online content, or does my content go to the next person in a succession order that I’ll designate in my internet last will and testament?
Whatever legal, logistical or emotional questions are involved, Facebook is acknowledging that the content we create in the digital space is uniquely ours, and that when we pass on from this planet, we leave these assets behind. While not as important as a finding cure for cancer or parenting a child who might one day bring peace and healing to the world (here’s hoping), content makes an impact and leaves a legacy — and as we take responsibility for selecting an executor for our will or a guardian for the things that mean the most to us, it makes complete sense to designate a trustworthy representative who will treat your online assets with care and respect.
And so my search begins. ☺
(A version of this post appeared on Medium.)